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'Mother Nature Has The Upper Hand' In Wildfire Fight

A tinderbox landscape and unusually windy conditions have caused more than 60 wildfires to explode across Central and East Texas — creating a hellish Labor Day for thousands of Texans. Two people have been killed so far.

The worst fire is in Bastrop County, just southeast of Austin, where the blaze has been burning out of control for more than a day.

No one in Bastrop has ever seen anything like it. The tall, pine forests that were a favorite getaway for campers and city commuters have erupted into an inferno.

Driven by a relentless north wind, the blaze has jumped a broad, four-lane highway and the Colorado River — twice --as it keeps getting bigger.

"When it first started we were out there, we got overran, we had to get out. We had to evacuate and it just burned everything in its path. Forest, houses, everything, cars, anything that was there was burned," says Carolyn Laird, who is a firefighter — along with her daughter Devan — for the Bastrop Fire Department.

But, with the wind and these dry conditions can firefighters fight the fire?

"No, the only thing you can do is get people out," Devan Laird says. "At this point all you can do is let the fire take its course and hopefully everybody is out in time."

Throughout town, people stop where they are, shade their eyes and gaze toward the east where a great billow of smoke rises into the cloudless sky, turning from grey-brown to dirty-white as it drifts south. Now and again, a helicopter or air tanker flies there, looking tiny against the immensity of the smoke cloud.

By Monday afternoon, authorities reported the blaze had damaged or destroyed more than 400 homes, and that figure is expected to rise. Five thousand people have evacuated.

A group of evacuees gathers in the parking lot of a Shell station on Highway 95, at a police roadblock about seven miles from the fire.

Mother Nature has the upper hand and we'll try our best. Safety for firefighters and public first.

"We left about 6 last night. The power went out at 5:30 for good," says Nancy Allen, who evacuated her home with her husband and their 4-year-old daughter, Minny, along with three dogs and three roosters, packing them into two vehicles, and racing away from the approaching flames.

"Called the power company, I went outside to get a better signal, looked up, [saw] huge smoke clouds and I knew it wasn't normal," Allen says.

They've been at the gas station ever since.

"We slept here last night in the parking lot, I didn't sleep a lot," she says. "Woke up, praying, crying, go back to sleep for a minute, pray, cry. We got a lot of people helping and everything for us."

Allen and her neighbor, Evelyn Sanky, comfort one another.

"I was at state park. When I got there literally three minutes after I arrived I was evacuated," she says, choking back tears. "It's something that you have to live it to know what we're going through."

Gov. Rick Perry, who was campaigning for president in South Carolina, abruptly flew back to Texas on Monday.

A beleaguered spokesperson for the Texas Forest Service said, "We've completely depleted our resources. We're on every fire we can possibly handle and then some."

Firefighters are streaming here from all over the state, and beyond its borders.

Mike Simmons, from Lake Tahoe, Calif., sits in a U.S. Forest Service water truck idling beside the highway, waiting for a bulldozer to arrive, so they can go join the fight.

"Mother Nature has the upper hand and we'll try our best," he says. "Safety for firefighters and public first."

The fire is so fast and so hot, devouring dried-out loblolly pine forest, that it's still largely being fought from aircraft. The ground battle will follow.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.